A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book about the collapse of morality. I wanted to dig into the subject and trace the intellectual roots of the moral catastrophe that occurred at some point in the 20th century. How did morality become identified with the -isms and -phobias?
In 2020, our country is being ripped apart by fanatics who are obsessed with antiracism, but a century ago virtually no one in America believed “antiracism” had anything to do with morality. The same is true of “anti-Semitism.” It became taboo after World War II. In our times, accusations of sexism, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, “discrimination,” “white privilege” and “white supremacy” and so on are sufficient grounds to destroy a man’s career. The traditional moral virtues which used to collectively comprise a Victorian man’s character – things like honesty, courage, integrity, fidelity, piety, temperance and so forth – count for nothing in the public sphere. It occurred to me that 18th and 19th century Americans would be bewildered by what passes for “morality” in our times. “Morality” as we understand it in the 21st century was conjured into existence only in recent decades.
Anyway, I never completed that project and moved on to other things, but studying the Victorian-to-Modern transition has given me new insight into the causes of this moral breakdown. The Victorian generations understood morality to be universal, true, absolute and obvious. In contrast, the Modern generations attempted to base morality on pragmatism, relativism and social science. In doing so, the Moderns untethered morality from all forms of traditional authority, which cast future generations adrift into a world where “morality” has been steadily redefined by academia and the mass media as being synonymous with trends like Freudian psychoanalysis, critical theory and postmodernism.
The biggest blow to Victorian morality occurred in the early 20th century shortly before World War I when the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, H.G. Wells and other Europeans arrived in America where pragmatism was already ascendant due to the influence of William James and John Dewey.
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“The Liberation, the movement of thought which reached America in the prewar years, is easy to taste and observe, but hard to define. Pervasive and vigorous, it was over very quickly. Iridescent and shifting, insistently gay (its critics would say irresponsible), it was based not so much on a theory as on a way of getting along without theories. One understands it most easily through characteristic episodes recalled in memoirs or described in the press – the explosion of popular poetry in new modes, the excitement of the Armory Show, the dramatic succession of intellectual fashions, the way Bergson and Wells and Freud became crazes like the Turkey Trot or the Tango. To see the Liberation in its dazzling colors – the colors of the Russian Ballet and Matisse, one must place it for contrast against the solid true-blue background of the Progressive Era.
If the Liberation had a characteristic doctrine, it was a simple and old one, very close to the central assertion of earlier romantic periods, the assertion that life transcends thought. The dogmas of the nineteenth century, idealist and still more scientific naturalist, were dead; the twentieth century was to have no place for any dogmas at all. Nothing, especially nothing depressing, had been proven; science had suddenly become wide-open at the ends, and the arguments of philosophers had cancelled each other out. Therefore the road was clear for the creative intuition: one could believe almost whatever one wanted. Traditional values, like traditional means of establishing them, were highly doubtful; it was permissible to prefer violence to peace, creative destruction to building, primitivism to civilization. The only thing that was not permissible was fear, especially fear of change or of the future.
The Liberation reached America some time not long before 1910 and it was clearly over by 1917. It directly affected only certain small groups of young people, and yet its influence was pervasive during these years. Because it was so brief, historians of thought and literature have often failed to describe it clearly. Sometimes they have confused it with earlier tendencies, more often its fugitive note has been drowned out by the brass bands of the twenties. A distant movement in itself, the Liberation was related to what went before, and it opened the way to all that came after …”
Walter Lippmann, a cofounder of The New Republic which became the mouthpiece of early modernist liberalism, was one of the young Losters who was influenced by what Henry F. May calls the Liberation. nb4 it is pointed out in the comments that Lippmann was Jewish. While this is true, Lippmann wasn’t as bad as some of the Gentiles who were his contemporaries like Randolph Bourne. William James and John Dewey also towered in cultural influence over the younger generation.
The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:
“Reconstruction of values proceeded in the nervous generation. Most of those who participated in the rebuilding attempted to establish an ethical system on an empirical, scientific basis. Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals, published in 1929 after five years of work, is the central statement.”
By the time Walter Lippmann published A Preface to Morals, the moral consensus of the Victorian era had been toppled by the pragmatists, relativists and the modernists. As we have seen, the New Humanists led by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More were exchanging fire with H.L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, Malcolm Cowley and others on the Modernist side of the debate. See Norman Foerster’s Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization and C. Hartley Grattan’s The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium. In the late 1920s, the debate sucked in American intellectuals and produced rival symposiums. The Modernists prevailed and “Babbitt” became forever associated with Sinclair Lewis’ novel. The Genteel tradition gave way to Modernism in the 1920s.
“Along with most intellectuals in the twenties (Humanists, of course, excepted) Lippmann recognized the breakdown of belief in external, higher authority as a source of values. Man had been left “in the midst of [a] vast dissolution of ancient habits.” The modern generation, Lippmann continued, found it difficult to define right and wrong. The old idea of divine authority had once made morality a matter of discovering the will of God and then conforming to it. There was no “why”; just faith and obedience. Then, gradually, this certainty had been eroded. Science played a major role. So did the modern disinclination to accept any arbitrary authority – in government, for instance.”
The Losters unshackled themselves from Victorian morality and embraced Modernism. This cultural break which occurred in the 1920s separates the Victorian generations from the Modern generations.
“In some quarters it had been supposed that this emancipation would be the key to happiness, but by 1929 Lippmann had his doubts. Man could not exist in a moral vacuum. If civilization was to exist, some ethical system was essential. In A Preface to Morals Lippmann nominated his candidate.
The basis of the new morality, Lippmann decided, had to be necessity, common sense, and, most importantly, experience. Taking the pragmatic, relativistic approach, he argued that codes of conduct and social institutions would be evaluated according to how well they worked to produce a satisfactory life. The old codes would not necessarily become passé. Lippman had not intention of discarding traditional values such as love, honesty, courage, restraint, and unselfishness. Nor did he envision the replacement of institutions like marriage and the family. They were justified on the basis of human experience and the scientific method of testing observable consequences. Pragmatic criteria led me to act in the manner dictated by religion. God was unnecessary; the same results, in terms of human behavior, could be attained with social science.”
As subsequent history was to show, it was incredibly naive to assume that God and faith and the transcendent and absolute standards could be subtracted from traditional Christian morality and that it could rest comfortably on the new foundation of pragmatism, relativism and the new social science, but this is what the American liberal establishment came to believe at the time.
“In the concluding portion of A Preface to Morals Lippmann considered, one by one, the chief values of the world’s great religions past and present. In each case he attempted to prove the practicality of the particular law or institution. Writing on the institution of marriage, for example, Lippmann declared: “If it is the truth that the convention of marriage correctly interprets human experience, whereas the separatist conventions [i.e., the practice of separating sex and marriage] are self-defeating, then the convention of marriage will prove to be the conclusion which emerges out of all this immense experimenting. It will survive not as a rule of law imposed by force … It will not as a moral commandment with which the elderly can threaten the young … It will survive as the dominant insight into the reality of life and happiness, or it will not survive at all.” The regulation of sexual behavior through the institution of marriage, then, was a practical matter. The joining of one man and one woman was the product of experiment and experience rather than the whim of an omnipotent deity or a bearded mystic’s oracular pronouncement.”
In attempting to substitute pragmatism, relativism and social science as the basis of marriage and in elevating the value of “experimentation” and “experience,” the modernists simply undermined the institution. They undermined the family and morality in general. The logic of the modernist aesthetic which values “experimentation” and “experience” and “self-expression” dissolved all restraints.
“The response of the American intellectual community to Lippmann’s book provides an insight into the attitude of the 1920s on the subject of value. Most of those who reviewed A Preface to Morals accepted as fact the dissolution of the absolute. Supernaturalism was defunct. But most expressed confidence in modern man’s ability to reconstruct morality on a naturalistic basis and applauded Lippmann for his attempt.”
What could go wrong?
“Edmund Wilson’s reaction was typical of the general opinion. Writing in the New Republic in July 1929, Wilson agreed with Lippmann that “society left to itself, despite its present bewilderments, may probably be counted upon to evolve a sound morality.” A Preface to Morals, Wilson continued, was “an antidote to T.S. Eliot … and to the … other critics who tend to despair of modern civilization.” Lippmann, according to Wilson, gave modern man assurance that even with ancient authorities gone we could “stand on our human feet” in the matter of value.”
Yeah, before falling flat on our face.
T.S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt were right.
“Other reviewers followed suit. Elmer Davis declared in the New York Times that “Mr. Lippmann’s title should cheer the pessimist who thinks it is about time to write a postscript to morals.” Writing in the Book-of-the-Month Club News, Henry Seidel Canby observed that “a moral earthquake” had shaken the Western world since World War I and muddied distinctions between right and wrong. Every thoughtful person, Canby believes, had been searching for a substitute for the “conventional rules that were accepted as final in their youth.” Lippmann’s book was the answer; it provided a new moral philosophy. In Canby’s opinion this made A Preface to Morals a book no thoughtful American should miss.”
In retrospect, it is worth reading as the beginning of the end.
“And few, it seemed, did. The book was published in May, 1929, and chosen immediately and unanimously, by five judges, as the Book of the Month. The first printing was 80,000 copies, and there were six more printings before the end of the year. A Preface to Morals ranked sixth on the list of best-selling nonfiction for 1929. Lippmann, apparently, spoke reassuring words to an anxious age.”
In essence, Walter Lippmann’s argument in A Preface to Morals was that you can have your cake and eat it too. What does social science have to say about the subject today about a century out?